In August of this year, Susan, and I, along with our dog named Bear, headed out for a week of camping at Fintry Provincial Park on the west shore of Okanagan Lake. As we headed north from West Kelowna to Fintry, the road was narrow and winding with a sharp dropoff along the side of the road in some places. There were signs warning of wild animals on the road and we did see a deer during our drive. Susan and I were both anxious, and so was our dog. If we had been out for a leisurely drive, I probably would have turned around. But we knew where we were going and we wanted to get there, so we persevered. And here is the lesson I learned from that experience. Obstacles along the way will not deter you when your desired destination is worth more to you than the pain.
But what about those times when the challenges we face are far more serious than a windy road on the way to a campsite? What if the challenges we face are really hard, like pain from an injury that, at times, is more than we can bear? Or a health diagnosis that could take our life? Or a broken relationship that breaks our heart, because we cannot see any way that things can be repaired? How can we carry on when very difficult obstacles rise up within our life?
To answer that question, we are going to be digging into James 1:1-12. If you have a Bible or a Bible app with you, I invite you to turn there now.
We Desire Short-term Satisfaction for Our Desires
As you do that, here is a bit of background that will help you to better understand this passage. The letter from which our passage comes is generally believed to have been written by James, the younger half-brother of Jesus. At first, James did not believe that his older brother was the Messiah, but eventually he did realize that Jesus was God’s long-promised Messiah, and James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. There are many theories about when this letter was written, but some scholars think that it might have been written before A. D. 50, which would make it one of the earliest New Testament letters, with the possible exception of Galatians. This was a very tumultuous time for the Jerusalem Church. After Stephen was martyred, Christians in Jerusalem were persecuted and many fled for other parts of the Roman Empire, taking the Gospel message of life, forgiveness, healing and hope through Jesus with them. It is to these scattered followers of Jesus that James writes to encourage them, and he writes as one who knows personally what obstacles, trials and suffering are all about.
And he writes words which, from a human point of view, are some of the hardest words in the Bible to accept. In James 1:2, we read, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, (James 1:2) This is a verse that strikes at the heart of our hedonistic, self-centered nature and the times in which we live. If you find that somewhere inside of yourself there is a part of you that is pushing back against these words, that is the part of you that needs to die. I say that as someone who has a whole bunch of parts within me that push back against this verse. And the reason that we push back against this verse is because our desired destination is too near. The place that we want to get to is the peak of enjoyment, satisfaction and pleasure in this life.
There is a very good reason we want those things. It is because God has placed a desire for heaven within each and every human heart. That’s why human suffering like we see in Ukraine, the Downtown East Side, our hospitals, our communities, and in our own families, breaks our hearts.
It’s because all those things are a stark reminder that we are not in heaven yet. And the ironic thing is that if we pursue personal enjoyment, satisfaction or pleasure as a goal, we will never get there. Because that which we seek cannot be found in this world. The longing in the deepest part of every human heart is for something that can only be satisfied by something beyond this world. And that something is heaven.
Influencers, marketing mavens and advertisers will all try to sell you some version of heaven on earth which you can achieve by buying their products or subscribing to their YouTube channel. But as enticing as their presentations are, none can deliver on their implied promises. All they do is encourage us to keep our focus on our life in this world.
With a near-term focus, the bumps and bruises we face in this life seem cataclysmic because they threaten what we value most, a good life, here and now.
Resetting What We Think, Believe and Love
The solution is to reset what we think, what we believe and what we love. What do I mean by that? The path to the life we seek will never happen by wishing things were better, or by wanting good things to be or by worrying that bad things won’t come upon us and the people we love. Wishing, wanting and worrying are only symptoms which indicate that our life needs to be reset. Obtaining the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus offers to us begins by examining our thoughts, beliefs and desires and asking God how those things need to change.
What does that look like in the light of the passage we are looking at today? Let’s go back to that Bible verse that we looked at earlier, James 1:2. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, (James 1:2) The easy thing would be to disregard or ignore this passage altogether, but then we would miss out on the good stuff that God has for us in there. We begin by meditating on this passage and asking ourselves what is rising up within us. Maybe we experience some of that pushback and find ourselves thinking, “The last thing I feel when I experience trials is joy, and I don’t know how it is possible for anyone to be joyful in times of trouble.” Okay. That’s a good start. But let’s dig deeper and ask ourselves why we feel that way. What do I believe that is being challenged here? Is it something about God, or joy, or suffering? Maybe it’s something like, “If God really loved me, then he would never allow me to suffer.” Okay.
Now let’s test this belief. Did God the Father really love his Son, Jesus? Yes, he did. Why did God the Father allow Jesus to bear sins which were not his own and suffer a death which he did not deserve? Because there was something more important at stake. In Hebrews 12, we read, For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2) What was that joy that led Jesus to willingly endure the cross that his Father set before him? It was each and everyone of you. Jesus paid the full cost of forgiveness for the sins of the whole world so that anyone, by faith, can enter into eternal life with him.
So eternity is the span by which we measure the good life we have from God. Everything in this life is only temporary, and the good things we experience here are only shadows of the ultimate goodness that is to come. For one day Jesus will come back to this world in a visible way, and he will raise us from the dead with our old bodies made new, never to get sick, grow old or die ever again. Satan and all his henchmen will be banished, death will be destroyed, and all of creation will be healed and restored to its original goodness. Heaven and earth will be reunited, as they were in the beginning, and we will live with God, fully alive and fully human, in the new heaven and earth forever. That is the endgame that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has in mind for us, and aiming our lives for anything less will result in less joy and more worry than we should have.
How many of you have seen the movie Infinity War in a movie theater? What was the emotional atmosphere like in the theater as people left? Pretty somber, right? What do you think would have happened if a movie goer were to say at that point, “I am never going to see another Marvel movie again?” They would have missed out on how the story ends. They would have missed that moment in Endgame when that first portal opened up and T’Challa walked through. They would have missed the second snap that undid the first one. They would have missed Thanos turning to dust. They would have missed Hawkeye’s joyful reunion with his family. Dear friends, we live in Infinity War, but because of Jesus, our destiny is Endgame. To put it in this world terms, we are broken, hurting people living in a broken and hurting world, but because of Jesus, our destiny is a healed and restored human life with God in a healed and restored creation.
We Lift Our Focus From the Temporary to the Eternal
So what does this mean for us? To live with the joy that James talks about, even when trials and suffering come upon us, the first thing that we need to do is lift our focus from the temporary things of life in this world, and focus instead on the eternal things of our life with Jesus. With our focus on our eternal life with Jesus, we will see that the troubles we experience in this life will not last, nor will they harm us. In fact, this testing of our faith can help it to grow stronger, and a strong faith will help us to become more like Jesus in this life and better prepare us for the life to come.
The joy we experience in difficult times comes to us because we, by faith, can see our life the way that God does. In the eternal safety of his loving care for us, he is refining us to remove our sinful self-centeredness. As we cry out to him, he pours more of his life-giving love into our hearts, nourishing our new eternal life so that it becomes fuller and more robust. As we release our grip on the things of this world, our open hands are able to embrace more of the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus wants to give to us. That life is our life that we live before God. It is rich, full and abundant because it is life with Jesus. And that life will only grow and get better as our life in this world diminishes, until that day when Jesus raises us from the dead to live with him forever in the new heaven and earth to come.
The joy we desire comes to us, not by pursuing joy itself, but by having a Kingdom Focus. Having a Kingdom Focus means that we voluntarily change our thoughts so that we are thinking about God’s Kingdom, that is life before God, more than we are thinking about life in this world. It means that we change our beliefs so that they reflect the understanding that ultimate reality is not what we see and experience in this world, it is what we see and experience by faith in our life before God, and one day those invisible realities will be made visible. It also means–and this is perhaps the hardest, but most important, transition to make–that we change what we love. It is very easy for us to love the things of this world, and that, in itself, is not wrong. It’s when we treasure the things of this world and make them our ultimate love that we go off track. Our lives can become shaken and even shattered when our ultimate love is threatened or taken away. However, when our ultimate love is God, we are steadfast, even when going through a very difficult time, because God and his love can never be taken away from us. As we read in Romans 8:38-39, For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Putting Your Roots Down
Years ago, Dr. A. Parnell Bailey wrote a religious column for the local newspaper in Goldsboro, NC. In one of his columns, he wrote these words:
“I once visited an orange grove where an irrigation pump had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. The man giving the tour then took me to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. “These trees could go without rain for another 2 weeks,” he said. “You see, when they were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Now mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun, these are finding moisture at a greater depth.”
Dear friends, the encouragement I want to leave with you today is this: Put your roots deep down, lift your eyes up to and keep your focus on Jesus and His Kingdom into Jesus. Let him anchor you, let him nourish you, let him protect you. He will help you to live a life that is even more than anything that you can ask or imagine. He will not let you down and you can trust in him. Because Obstacles along the way will not deter you when your desired destination is worth more to you than the pain. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on August 28, 2022. To view the podcast of this message, click here. For more information about our church, please go to wglc.org.)
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The story about Parnell Bailey is from “A Life That Pleases God,” Emmanuel Baptist Church (Internet; available at: http://www.ebcsaybrook.com/ldquoa-life-that-pleases-godrdquo-09162012.html; accessed August 18, 2022).